Happiness and The Missing Tile Syndrome

“We have met the enemy, and he is us” is Pogo creator Walt Kelly’s apt 20th century parody of Perry’s famous quotation. It captures the essence of a profound and oft unrecognized truth, that we are often our own worst enemies. This applies in many areas of life, including in our search for happiness.

Dennis Prager in 1998 wrote a book titled “Happiness Is A Serious Problem” subtitled “A Human Nature Repair Manual.” I liked his title so much that I have plagiarized it as my title for  talks I have given to various organizations over time on the subject of happiness. For those of you interested in this topic, I recommend the book to you as being both informative and thought-provoking.

If you wish to effortlessly destroy your own happiness, consider someone or something that brings you joy, satisfaction and happiness, and fixate on whatever is flawed or missing. Prager uses the analogy of a beautiful ceiling in which there is one tile missing. Looking at this ceiling, you will find your eyes fixated on that one missing tile, unable to appreciate the beauty of the rest of the structure. He refers to this as the “Missing Tile Syndrome.”

We behave in a similar manner when it comes to our personal relationships. Whether it’s our spouse, a friend, a child or someone we area dating, we often notice the quality we deem to be missing, that keeps that relationship from being ideal, rather than showing gratitude and appreciation for all that is present. And ironically, just as we focus on that one missing quality in our relationship, we note that same quality being present in others around us. While objects can achieve, or come close to achieving, some degree of perfection, humans are all flawed. The idea that this person, or this relationship would be perfect for us, were it not for this missing x-factor, is an exercise in futility, and a prescription for perpetual dissatisfaction. Just as comparing ourselves to others is a great way to creative unhappiness, the same goes true in our personal relationships, say by measuring our marriage as opposed to someone else’s. (Besides, no one outside ever knows what truly goes on in a marriage.)

So what do you do if you find yourself with a missing tile in your life? You can admit how powerful this perception of something missing may be in your life. You can attempt to identify as precisely as possible what you feel is missing. Finally, you need to determine if what is missing is something that is vital to you happiness, or just one of your insatiable longings.

Once you have identified the exact nature of that which you feel is missing, you are left with only three options. You can get it, forget it, or replace it. If you don’t choose one of these three options, you are guaranteed to remain unhappy. Rather than offering you examples of each of these three choices. I challenge you to think of your own lives, and consider your own “missing tile” and how you have chosen to deal with its absence. I hope at least some of you will share your own insights regarding this common obstacle to happiness.



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A Departure

It’s another Poetry Monday. Hope you survived the weekend. Here are some words from Peter Ferenczi to help place you in a different mindset than the one you currently hold.


a departure


my final night in New York

delayed by idiots at the postal drop

(how hard is it to print a shipping label?)

I ring her doorbell, late.


it’s another last

in a trickle that began months ago,

a dribble swollen to a flood

in the looming shadow of departure.


each last pops with flashbulb intensity.

bright, Technicolor enhanced,

drawn meticulously detailed by a mind

trying to burn itself on a moment.


her shadow coalesces from the hallway’s gloom,

silhouette abstracted by the frosted glass.

the shuffle of her slippered feet,

door opens to let a last dissolve into the night.


inside, the lingering smells of cooking,

the walls I helped paint,

the 70’s couch where we watched videos on

quiet evenings, the television turned low.


we sit there now, the TV on,

trading trivialities for a while;

we talk around the finality of it.

then we go into her bedroom.



the taxi idles in the street.

on the stoop in the blood-warm dark,

I kiss her as if I’ll be back tomorrow


and I’m gone, rolling towards Brooklyn.

“girlfriend?” asks the cabby.

“yeah – no, not any more.”





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Socrates on Happiness

Socrates (469 – 399 BC) claimed that his wisdom and insights arose merely in “knowing that he knew nothing.”
He argued that happiness is not just bestowed on a select few, but could actually be obtained by human endeavor. In his view, happiness and virtue are inextricably linked.
The Greek word eudaimonia used for happiness means “human flourishing”.

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The Harvard Happiness Project

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is the longest running study of happiness. Begun in 1938, the study has followed 724 men since they were sophomores at Harvard University. The researchers have collected data every 2 years, asking questions about their mental, emotional and physical wellness, even interviewing their families. There are still about 19 members of the original group alive, now in their 90s. They matched this group with a similar number of people living in a poor section of Boston, also followed long term.

They found that the strongest association with happiness came not from the amount of money, prestige, or position gained, but from the close relationships formed with spouses, family and friends. Those who were the happiest were the ones who had formed and maintained the closest personal bonds. They were better at focusing on the things important to them, and letting go of past failures. In fact, the number of close friends and family was the single best predictor of the level of happiness of the subjects, and this positive effect in mid-life also predicted the level of satisfaction with life as people aged. Surprisingly, not only were the participants who made these connections happier, they were also healthier, with longer lives. Those people who made and maintained close personal relationships proved to have predictably longer and happier lives than were predicted by social class, IQ, income, or even genes. These findings proved equally true among the Harvard men as well in the inner city participants, who were the control group. Eventually, the 1300+ children of the participants were included in the study. They are now in their 50s to 60s. More than a decade ago, researchers started to include the spouses of the participants.

If you want more details regarding this fascinating and informative project, still ongoing after 80 years, google the Harvard Happiness Study.


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A River, A Book, A Stone

a river, a book, a stone


where I am from

all but the stones and a few trees are young.


but where I have been,

time, human time, is deep.

you can dive into it,

plumb the depths until your line runs out

with the bottom still beyond reach

fathoms down, millennia.


it’s the dimension

unrecorded in building plans or city maps,

but without it: no building, no city.


it is visible with eyes closed and mind open.

events exist immutable, hidden by time

but revealed in marks scratched into walls,

voices from stone, vellum, parchment and old men,

telling of before and before,

spy holes through time.


I saw an infinity of layered Coliseums

reaching back and back

with the world changing and swarming about them

like a shifting sea split on the prow of a ship at speed.

P. Ferenczi

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Happiness Is A Place To Visit

Happiness Is A Place to Visit


A couple of years ago, an issue of the Harvard alumni magazine had an article entitled The Science of Happiness. Until only the last few years, psychologists and psychiatrists alike focused their attention on pathology and human failings to the almost complete exclusion of concepts such as joy and happiness. It wasn’t until 1998 that Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, urged his colleagues to turn toward an understanding and building of human strengths to balance the focus of what until then was healing damage. So instead of focusing on the characteristics that might make a person an alcoholic, the spotlight would shift to the resilience of those who have managed recovery. Another way to approach the issue is to ask the question, “Can we develop a model of mental health beyond ‘no mental disease’?”  So let me ask you now, do you think it more important working on weaknesses or fostering strengths to achieve personal success and happiness? After you’ve had a little time to weigh in on this issue, I’ll share with you my own opinion, as well as the results of some recent research in this area.

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What We Want Doesn’t Always Make Us Happy

Most of modern economic theory is based on the premise that we, as human beings, maximize utility. To an economist, utility means how much people want something. If an economist sees someone working hard and sacrificing to buy a house, the assumption is that houses have a lot of utility to people. However, Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher who coined the concept of utility and is responsible for “utilitarianism”, conceived of this term as meaning happiness or pleasure.

Economists tend to assume that utility is good, and people should get what they want. However, sometimes people make choices they come to regret. Greasy food certainly tastes good, but those who become obese, develop diabetes and heart disease may later wish they had shown more restraint in consumption. The question becomes, should society care about people’s present wants and desires, or future ones? Bentham’s utilitarianism looked at a good society as one that made its people happy. But what if the things that people desire don’t bring them happiness?

Recent happiness research has led to some surprising and disturbing findings.  People appear to frequently seek out things that make them unhappy. One of these involves the use of social media, specifically Facebook. In a 2019 study by economist Hunt Alcott and colleagues looked at how much study participants had to be paid to stop using Facebook for 1-2 months. The median was $100, and the average was $180. Interestingly, the researchers found that the people who stopped using Facebook were happier afterwards, with lower levels of depression and anxiety and higher levels of life satisfaction. The change was about 25-40% of the benefit attributed to psychotherapy.

Why do people spend so much time with something that decreases their happiness? It’s possible that social media becomes an addiction, just like alcohol. Or people are compelled by motivation other than happiness, such as the fear of missing out.

As another example of the discordance between happiness and utility can be found in people’s choice of commuting time versus the happiness that comes from owning a larger house with more land. Economist Robert H. Frank reports in his study that the larger homes in the suburbs don’t compensate for the increased commute time when measured in terms of happiness.

The general disconnect that many studies find between long term happiness and acquisition of material things is a reflection of the power of advertising and our false belief that getting more stuff is the way to achieve happiness. If having fame and fortune provided happiness, than all those people living in the big mansions should be the most deliriously happy people in the world. All you have to do is read any magazine or news article to see that this belief is not true, yet we all somehow continue to strive to acquire more material stuff, and wonder why we are still not happy. So if it is not money and stuff, what do we need to be happy people? Stay tuned – the next posts will deal with the results of happiness research, and what we can learn from it about how to increase our own happiness in life.

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Humor for Viral Times

Dear Abby was a syndicated advice columnist in the States fro many years. I hope you enjoy the following letters sent to her. Stay healthy!

Dear Abby Stumpers.
The following are actual letters that Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby) admitted she was at a total loss to answer:

Dear Abby,
A couple of women moved in across the hall from me. One is a middle-aged gym teacher, and the other is a social worker in her mid twenties .These two women go everywhere together, and I’ve never seen a man go into their apartment or come out. Do you think they could be Lebanese?

Dear Abby,
What can I do about all the sex, nudity, language and violence on my VCR?

Dear Abby,
I have a man I never could trust. He cheats so much I’m not even sure this baby I’m carrying is his.

Dear Abby,
I am a twenty-three-year-old liberated woman who has been on the pill for two years. It’s getting expensive, and I think my boyfriend should share half the cost, but I don’t know him well enough to discuss money with him.

Dear Abby,
I suspected that my husband had been fooling around, and when I confronted him with the evidence he denied everything and said it would never happen again. Should I believe him?

Dear Abby,
Our son writes that he is taking Judo. Why would a boy who was raised in a good Christian home turn against his own?

Dear Abby,
I joined the Navy to see the world. I’ve seen it. Now, how do I get out?

Dear Abby,
My forty-year-old son has been paying a psychiatrist $50.00 an hour every week for two-and-a-half years. He must be crazy.

Dear Abby,
Do you think it would be all right if I gave my doctor a little gift? I tried for years to get pregnant and couldn’t, and he did it.

Dear Abby,
My mother is mean and short-tempered. Do you think she is going through her mental pause?

Dear Abby,
You told some woman whose husband had lost all interest in sex to send him to a doctor. Well, my husband lost all interest in sex years ago and he IS a doctor. What now?









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A Better Question

It’s Poetry Monday, so here is another offering from one of my personal favorites, Peter Ferenczi. Since the years he wrote his poetry, Peter has found happiness, which is great for him and his family, but drove away, at least according to him, his Muse for writing poems. In case you are interested to see what he is doing now, you can visit his website, http://partialsight.com

a better question


that dead-tired question inflicted on a child

a thousand times or more:

“what do you want to be when you grow up?”

an adult’s conversational gambit

elicits a Pavlovian response:

fireman, doctor, nurse,  policeman

from the child who (hopefully)

has never smelled a building burn,

never delivered news of death,

believes in Good and Bad.

A chuckle, a pat on the head, a moment wasted.



“what are you now?”

a start on the question

that most never ask or answer

even when they grow up.


P Ferenczi




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Honor Is Not Just A Word

I had a lot of time for contemplation yesterday during the four hour drive to and from San Diego, and in the many hours waiting for my step-brother to get out of his long surgery. (Happily, it went well.) He is an ex-naval officer, retired from the service by his illness. As I was driving by the Marine base at Camp Pendleton, and saw the Navy ships off Coronado, I found myself thinking about a word we don’t use nearly as much in our society as we used to, and whose absence in usage and fact diminishes us all. That word is honor. Both my parents, but especially my grandfather (about whom I’ve written in this blog a month ago) used to talk with me about the absolute importance of honor in our lives, and how we must cultivate this vital virtue in a manner that will result in our actions and our lives reflecting that we are people of honor, and we behave and treat everyone we meet with the respect that this word demands of us.

As a noun, honor means regard and great esteem, an adherence to what is right.

As a verb, honor means to look and act with high respect and regard, to fulfill an obligation or keep an agreement. As a boy, I was taught that a man’s word is his bond, and it is one that cannot be broken. It is a moral obligation, an imperative to which we have committed.

“Honor” comes from the Latin honos or honor, and from the old French onor, onorer.

Today, we say “do the honors”, meaning to perform a social duty or a small ceremony.

An “honor” is a thing conferred as a distinction, especially as an official reward for bravery or achievement. As the verb, it means exalt and glorify. Borrowing from the ancient Greeks who placed a wreath of laurels on the heads of the winners of their Olympic Games, we now use the term “laureates” for those we have officially honored, as with the Nobel Prize.

In the past, we referred to a woman’s honor as her purity, virtue or chastity.

Other words that accompany or describe someone with honor are: self-respect, dignity, courage, fidelity, virtue, nobility, integrity, uprightness, trustworthiness, excellence of character.

The Oxford Dictionary keeps a tally of the frequency of use of various English words, and sadly, but not surprisingly, the use of “honor” has been in marked decline since its heights from 1850-1900. If we are to survive as a species, we need to revitalize this word, not by usage, but by actions – our own, and by those upon whose actions we have some influence. We need to teach it to our children, we need to live it in our lives, and we need to demand it from our friends, and those to whom we give our votes. Think of how much better your world would be if you enforced the honor code upon all those with who you come in contact!

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